II. The Nature and Learning of History

The setting for this lecture was a luncheon session of the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 27, 1959. It was clear from the beginning that the views expressed in the essay were not in harmony with those expressed by other speakers at other sessions. Perhaps a certain chilliness seasoned with a bit of hostility might most accurately describe the response at the conclusion of the session. A few teachers, apparently with rich backgrounds of historical study, expressed their appreciation and requested copies of the lecture. Lost in the flood of papers more congenial to the prevailing views and overshadowed by the excellent presentation of ex-President Harry S. Truman at a dinner meeting, the essay has never been published except in mimeographed form for private circulation.

Separated in time by only a few weeks I heard an entering freshman declare that history was the dullest of all dull subjects and a graduating senior assert that he could learn all that he wanted to know about twentieth century American history from Time magazine. These comments selected at random suggest that all is not well in the house that is history.

History labelled the dullest of all subjects. History reduced to the level of slanted news in a slick weekly. History so inaccurate that it is labelled "Twistory." History taught poorly. These are the indictments that seem to justify some observations on the nature and learning of history. Perhaps we have led our students and the public to believe that history is something that it really is not; that the study of history can accomplish results that are outside its scope; and that somehow historical knowledge is just one step removed from prophetic insight.

It is clear that reflection upon the nature of history has produced some strange and contradictory statements. History is only a confused heap of facts .... a fable agreed upon ..,. is merely gossip .... is bunk .... is nothing more than the belief in falsehood ..., and so on.

But others have said, "History is the record of what has happened .... a pageant, not a philosophy .... an argument



without end .... the true poetry .... is not a body of knowledge but a way of behaving .... the unrolled scroll of prophecy .... a tired old man with a long beard .... a weapon in party strife .... a cat dragged by the tail to places it rarely wants to go." And, wonder of wonders, "History is not story in time. It is meaning made out of reality that has been seized upon and reconstructed in the mold of powerful imaginations." The chaos in the realm of definition of history is more than matched by the confusion in the area of motive for historical study. Symptomatic of the confusion is the use of such prefatory remarks as "all history proves." "The lesson of history is plain." "History teaches." "The verdict of history is clear." And one can hear or read that the products of historical study should include generalizations about human progress and decline; laws that presumably control the fates of nations; extrapolations of the past through the present and into the future; solutions to pressing problems; and, escape routes from the present with therapeutic side effects all of these, and many more, are alleged as the legitimate and proper products of historical study, Admittedly, many historians and teachers of history have contributed a great deal to the ambiguous state of the discipline. In response to the pervasive impact of the functionalist, they have enlisted history in support of all sorts of causes and objectives, ranging from good citizenship to living in the Space Age.

The answer to all of the confusion regarding the nature and uses of history seems to me to be a simple one. First of all a distinction must be made between history as actuality and history as record, the actual series of events and the remembered series of events. Surely everyone will agree that events actually happen and each one of us is willing to testify that he or she is a participant in a series of events which stretches back through all our yesterdays. May we not, then, declare with certainty and finality that history as actuality is not the product of the historian's imagination; that it is not an illusory, whimsical fantasy one thing today and another thing tomorrow; and, that "what's done is done" and once done, it cannot be undone either by the person or persons concerned or by the historian. History as knowledge of the past


The second thing of which we may be sure is that for most of the events in American history at least some descriptive materials have survived. One can question the reliability of the data; and one can indulge in all kinds of circumlocutions, but the simple fact still remains that we have in our libraries, in our newspaper collections, and in our archives, both public and private, a mass of tangible evidence of what has happened. Surely this facet of historical study need not be argued. A remarkable volume of documentary evidence has survived. It is available for study. All we need to do is to use it.

What then is the sole obligation of the learner of history whether as student in the classroom, as teacher in the lecture hail, or as researcher in the library? It is to reconcile as accurately as is humanly possible the remembered series of events history as record with the actual series. It is, in other words, simply a matter of knowing, of knowing enough to understand; of knowing enough to present a meaningful record; of knowing enough to be honest and accurate. The learning of history is thus conceived to be an intellectual enterprise of the highest order and not some kind of whimsical exercise. It follows, then, that knowledge of the record of what has happened is the simple and all-sufficient justification for the study of history. No fancy terminology or unintelligible jargon; no complicated verbiage; no clarion call to assume the role of the promoter or put on the robes of the prophet; no conceptual soapbox for the apostle or the advocate, but just a simple statement that history as we deal with it from day to day is the record of what has happened, and that the study of history is a process not of teaching and preaching, but of learning. History must be learned. It cannot be taught without doing violence to its basic nature.

In defining the nature of history I have deliberately placed the emphasis upon the problem of knowing. The inescapable result of such an emphasis is that the learner in the field of history must develop an infinite respect for knowledge for its own sake. The immensity and variety of historical materials warrant this conclusion. The subject matter of history is as broad and rich as life itself, and it is as deep as the span of recorded existence. It is as varied and as


complex as the subject matter of any field of study, because in a sense it includes every field of study. Millions of people through centuries of time, scattered over the entire earth, each one different, living under all sorts of conditions, in all sorts of places, doing all sorts of things: worshipping and working, planning and producing, writing and painting, governing and being governed, learning and teaching, fighting and loving all of this and much more is grist for the historian's mill. Rightly understood and rightly pursued the study of history is far more complex than many fields of study that are ordinarily thought to be the most intricate. Lewis Mumford has observed that "Even the small part of human history that is visible to historians is one of the most complex and mysterious of all the phenomena presented to man.... To understand the basic problem of the historian as he tries to produce an accurate and meaningful account of what happened one hundred years ago, try to imagine what the task will be of those who, a hundred years from now, attempt to describe our day and generation. The best trained man alive today, with all the benefits of science in communications, in computing machines, and in mobilizing data cannot do it, even though he is living amidst the events that are transpiring. In a sense the historian of the future will be expected to do what the contemporary of today cannot do. It is true that the factor of perspective makes the task of the historian easier than that of the contemporary, but even so trying to produce a faithful picture of the past is responsibility enough for any field of study. Here it is that the historian must labor, always seeking the truth and always knowing that he will never know the whole truth. In the tradition of the humanities the role of history is to add its bit of knowledge, incomplete though it may be, to the intellectual storehouse. Knowledge of expressions of thoughts in literature; of formulations of values in philosophy and religion; of creative achievements in all of the arts; of the deeds of engineers and scientists, of politicians, and statesmen; knowledge of all of this, and much more, needs to be passed on from generation to generation, so that what has been, becomes a part of what is and what is to be, simply because people know that it happened. History as knowledge of the past


Expressed in other words, I am asserting that knowledge as knowledge is worthwhile; that knowledge for knowledge's sake is sufficient justification for any research paper or subject matter discipline. I am denying that the value of history resides in methods or techniques; that knowledge must be embellished or adorned with postulates, assumptions, hypotheses, generalizations or with functional objectives in order to be worth the time and energy of those who study the historical record. I am asserting that the creativity of the learner in history does not derive from his ability to demonstrate an assumption that was the fruit of his imagination, but in being able to acquire sufficient knowledge to present a meaningful account of his subject. He does only what he is able to do study the rich and seamless tapestry that is the past in order to produce a fabric that is as faithful to the original as he can make it. He knows full well that those who come after him will have access to data that were not his and to procedures that were unknown to him. He knows that his word will not be the last word on a subject, not because an event that has occurred will in some fashion alter its character, and not because some shift in the contemporary scene will change the event or modify its intrinsic meaning, but because he cannot know enough about an event to describe it completely and finally.

There are a good many corollaries to the assertions that I have made about the significance of knowledge in the learning of history. For one thing I am denying that knowledge of the facts of history, and the interpretation of the facts, exist separately. I am denying that interpretation is a kind of frosting on the cake; an oasis of insight in a desert of facts; a kind of glittering crown on the forehead of knowledge. Indeed, some interpretations of history seem to be mere ghostly thoughts floating in a sea of ambiguity, or perhaps of ignorance. I have been impressed by the fact that the knowledge of the magnificent generalizers and striking interpreters appears to be characterized more by breadth and inaccuracy than by depth. Peter Geyl, the distinguished Dutch historian, calls these interpreters the system builders and says of them "I seem to see these system builders exulting joyfully or gloomily, at the spectacle of the world


and its bewildering past, of all great happenings, of nations, kings and centuries obediently falling into a pattern at the behest of their imagination and ingenuity to the greater glory of their principle." What I am saying, and what I believe Geyl is saying, is that meaning or interpretation is a part of our knowledge of an event. It is not an extrinsic formulation, but an intrinsic ingredient. Meaning does not originate in the present. It is a component of the past and we are able to express a meaningful interpretation of an event when our knowledge is adequate to the task.

I know that there are many who will reject this emphasis upon knowledge of historical events for its own sake as pure antiquarianism; as a sure route to fuddy-duddy-ness and as a prolific source of such student questions as "Why do I have to learn all of this junk anyway?" To many people, knowledge for knowledge's sake is a pedagogical heresy well deserving the most extreme form of anathema. But the opponents of knowledge for its own sake seem to me to be indulging in one of the most fatal forms of anti-intellectualism: the anti-intellectualism that down-grades knowledge and exalts the functional or vocational uses to which knowledge is put. Has not this attitude of mind contributed directly to the low esteem in which knowledge is held by students, that is, by the learners of history? If the principal practitioners of learning in history, that is those of us who are called teachers and researchers, do not have a profound respect for the subject matter of our discipline, how can we expect those who are learning with us, the students, to feel that it is worth their time and energy? It is quite possible that what we call student motivation is directly proportional to the amount of knowledge that the teacher has of his subject.

There are other facets of this question that are equally intriguing. If one says that knowledge of a certain historical event or development is more important than knowledge of another event or development, is he not in effect subordinating knowledge to the particular yardstick which he uses to measure the value of knowledge? Here, of course, we have come to one phase of subjective relativism. If each one of us has a different yardstick, and none of us has the kind of History as knowledge of the past


yardstick that was used yesterday, or will be used tomorrow, then confusion leads to nothingness and ultimately to the death of a discipline. Obviously I am asserting that a hierarchy of importance in historical study does not possess intrinsic validity. It follows from this premise, for example, that the learner of history whose field of interest is pre-civil war history need not apologize if he prefers to study the development of grates rather than the institution of slavery. Indeed, if the use of coal as a fuel for railway locomotives is thought to be a significant element in the transportation revolution then knowledge of the development of grates is essential to an understanding of the sequence of events that made possible a reasonably effective network of railroad lines.

Thus far, I have said that the nature of history requires unqualified emphasis upon knowledge if the learners of history are to have a discipline at all. This emphasis is also necessary if the student of history is going to be fair to the past, if he is going to validate his commitment to objectivity, and if he is going to develop perspective the most significant by-product of historical study.

It may seem curious to you that I have introduced the idea of fair play into this discussion, but it seems to me to be relevant. Those of us who are engaged in the learning of history are not free to indulge in "guilt-by-association" techniques because our victims are dead and cannot defend themselves. But is not this what we do when we create the impression that all American businessmen of the generation after the Civil War were "robber barons," filthy rich, and contemptuous of their customers, simply because they lived at the same time as Jim Fisk and Jay Gould? And are we going to insist that what happened at Andersonville accurately reflects the character of all southern people during the War between the States?

Or to come much nearer home. Do the tags pinned to the 1920's reflect the ideals and activities of all of the people of that era? I for one do not object to being reminded that the members of the "Lost Generation" are my contemporaries, but I deny the validity of the impressions created by such terms and phrases as "The Jazz Age," the "Flapper Years,"


license to indulge in extreme forms of biased accounts. Dedicated practitioners of this kind of manipulation have been known to transpose events by a full century and still pretend that they are writing history. If we turn to the area of personal conduct, will anyone seriously defend the position that because a persons knows that he cannot live a single day without sinning and confesses his weakness in his morning devotions that he is thereafter free to commit the grossest of sins? In the realm of Christian practice the confession of weakness is regarded as the point of departure for renewed striving to live a more righteous life. And so it should be with the student of history. Recognition of his own weakness, or in more operational terms, recognition of the difficulty of achieving objectivity, should result in greater determination to achieve it and should not be regarded as an excuse for wallowing in biases, prejudices, and preconceived judgments. The really basic question is of course, is there any such thing as history if objectivity is neither possible in practice nor desirable in purpose? Quite obviously the answer must be a negative one unless propaganda and history are considered to be synonyms. If historians really believe that the past cannot be known with a reasonable degree of certainty and accuracy, then the profession should declare its intellectual bankruptcy and close up shop.

One of the by-products of historical study that almost everyone accepts is an attitude of mind that is labelled perspective. I am not quite sure that all of us would agree on a definition, but for our purpose it is enough to remember that perspective connotes the practice of weighing data against the background of earlier events of a similar nature. It is viewing historical events in depth. Obviously perspective depends altogether upon accurate historical knowledge. If present day value judgments are imposed upon the past, clearly there can be no such thing as perspective. The teacher of history who begins the study of a historical problem from a present interest or issue is robbing the student of any chance of achieving perspective. Under the method of beginning historical study with a present problem, all one gets is more of the same present. I am frequently appalled at the nonchalance with which perspective is sacrificed through History as knowledge of the past


the telescoping of historical events. For example, we lost perspective on the Russian people when we compressed their history into the years since 1917. Knowledge of centuries of Russian achievements in literature, in music, in philosophy, and in science was not part of our intellectual storehouse and so we were shocked when they surpassed us in an area of scientific endeavor. In American history, we attribute the origin of some of our most treasured political principles to the eighteenth century enlightenment, forgetting or ignoring the fact that they had been enunciated on American soil by religious leaders a century earlier and had been discussed in England long before they reached this side of the Atlantic. We do our profession and our fellow learners a great disservice when we telescope the past in order to concentrate on the present. The best that we can hope for is a kind of "cut-flower" civilization, brilliant for the moment, but without roots and without the capacity to survive.

The significance of knowledge; the implementation of fair play in discovering, selecting, and organizing the facts of history; the attainment of objectivity in presenting the historical record; and the derivation of perspective as a by-product of historical knowledge all depend upon the principle of the uniqueness of each historical event. I do not believe that anyone can successfully controvert the statement that any event or series of events in which human beings are involved is unique in an absolute sense. Having happened once, no act, no matter how simple, can be repeated in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. There is no "Big Play-Back" in history. A word once spoken cannot be recalled nor can the impact upon the heart of the hearer be altered. A blow once struck cannot be undone nor the bruised spot wiped away.

"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."

All of these seemingly trivial observations are relevant to the problem of uniqueness in history. Each event that has occurred is engraved in the granite of remorseless time and


circumstance. Because it is unique it possesses intrinsic meaning and no person can separate the meaning from the context in which the event occurred. Moreover, there can logically be no such thing as rewriting the historical record in the sense of altering or changing the sequence or intrinsic character of events. Events cannot be studied from the present backward; they must be studied in the order in which they occurred. History as the written record is rewritten rightly only as a result of increased knowledge. The idea that each generation must write its own history, viewed from the premise of the granitic record of unique events, is as illogical as the idea that every generation must select the genes and chromosomes of its ancestors. All that any generation of historians can do is to add to the storehouse of knowledge by utilizing new materials and procedures. Finally, the uniqueness of each event does not necessarily mean that all of the past is pure chaos; that events happening in time are like grains of sand in a shifting dune, or drops of water in a limitless sea. Nor does it call for some extrinsic formulation that will seem to give meaning to history for a day and then, like words written in water, be obliterated by the next wave of mood or whim. It simply means that the historian as man is only man and not God, and that even when as man he sits on a throne of Univac computers he still cannot discern finally and certainly the pattern of historical events.

Quite obviously it is the quality of uniqueness of historical events which requires the learner of history to be concerned exclusively with the pursuit of knowledge. There is so much to be learned that there is no time for anything else. And it is the quality of uniqueness which is the barrier to the use of the facts of history for functional purposes. The data of history cannot be seized and shaped to serve a specific functional objective without the imposition of some pattern upon dissimilar events in order to make them appear to be similar. If a relationship between events actually existed, fuller knowledge will reveal it and the learner of history has made his contribution. If a synthetic relationship is read into events in order to promote a cause or to undergird a system, the student of history has abdicated his History as knowledge of the past


role as learner of history in favor of the more dramatic role of apologist, promoter, or propagandist.

Even teaching history, as distinguished from learning history and helping others to learn it, almost inevitably involves the postulation of some functional objective over and beyond the material that is being taught. Without going into the differences between acquiring a skill such as the accurate use of the multiplication table in arithmetic and enlarging one's storehouse of knowledge of the labor movement in the eighteen-forties, I would hazard the observation that the former can be taught whereas the latter must be learned. And if the learning is done in the classroom it is a process of learner as teacher, and learner as student, doing it together. Of course we have formalized part of the process in the use of textbooks and lectures, but this should not obscure the fact that in proportion to the body of knowledge that exists the teacher knows only a little bit more than the student. This is the basic reason why the alleged dichotomy between teaching and research does not really exist. In more practical terms this is the basic reason why those of us who call ourselves teachers of history can never feel that we are free to stop adding to our storehouse of knowledge. A generation of students analyzing data and writing essays, that is, learning history by actually practicing the methods of the historian, would be the natural outcome of the view of history that I have expressed. I could foresee greater interest in the study of history, greater respect for the task of the historians, and greater desire to continue the study of history. I could also foresee the validation of the view that all education is an intellectual enterprise devoted to the expansion and transmission of knowledge.


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Lynn H. Nelson
Lawrence, Kansas
6 November 2000

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